A few weeks ago I was chatting with someone in the office at the church, and we were commiserating about the electoral campaign and the vulgarity and vitriol coming out of it. And she said she couldn’t wait until November 9, when it would all be over and life could get back to normal. Well, I had to tell her that I was sorry to say so, but that I didn’t think it would be over then, and that normal might never return. Now, when I said that I was envisioning a different scenario from the one that played out in the end. And you can call me a hypocrite if you like, but now the idea of returning to normal feels less like a promise to be wistful about, and more like a temptation to be resisted.
My daughter came home upset the other night because a friend of hers at school, who had been as outraged as all the other kids during the campaign, had said of the President-elect, “well, he’s not that bad.” Which was also the message that the sitting President put out after meeting for the first time with his soon-to-be successor. And even I, in the days right after the election, when so many people I knew were freaking out, posted a statement on Facebook suggesting we give the man the benefit of the doubt. I dared to suggest that the realization of his awesome responsibility, and some vaporous mystique of the office that he inhaled in corridors of the White House, might awaken a latent graciousness and magnanimity in his soul.
But then he started filling posts in his administration: for National Security Advisor, he chose a man who likens Islam to cancer, and describes it as a political ideology disguised as a religion; for Attorney General, a Senator who was rejected for a federal judgeship because of his record of overt racism; for his senior advisor and chief political strategist, an internet publisher of white-nationalist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic propaganda. The Ku Klux Klan, and the rest of the neo-Nazi and white supremacist wing of the President-elect’s movement is jubilant, anticipating an all-out attack on the rights and liberties of ethnic, and sexual, and religious minorities. God help us if we come to see this as normal.
Of course, from a Christian point of view, there was never any “normal” to get back to. The Collect for this last Sunday of the Christian year describes the peoples of the earth as under the sway of a hostile power. It keeps us divided from each other, splintered into spurious identities of nation, and race, and religion. Not only are we divided, but we are also enslaved. We are imprisoned in the resentment and hate we nurse against those we consider “the other,” in the lies we tell to rationalize injustice and violence. Even when we succeed in dominating the other, and enjoying the privilege of their subservience, we are not free. We have only subjected ourselves, along with them, to a superior power. And the name that the Collect gives for this power is “sin.”
And it prays for God’s well-beloved Son to free us from this bondage and bring us together under his most gracious rule. But when it says that he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we must be careful not to misunderstand. This does not mean that he is of same ilk as the kings and presidents and party chairmen who rule the nations of the world, or that he makes a rival claim to their power. It is saying that Christ has overcome the superior power that keeps them, and us, enslaved. Because all earthly power, when you come right down to it, is a doomed effort to perpetuate itself, to defend its interests against those of an other. But Christ’s power comes from the sovereign will of the almighty and everlasting God, whose purpose it is to reconcile all people, and restore all things.
Which sounds nice, but how it really works is not the least bit normal. This is apparent when you consider that this power was decisively revealed on the cross. In Luke’s telling of the story, the Jewish leaders scoff at Jesus as he is hanging on the cross, and say, “he saved others; let him save himself.” And then the Roman soldiers mock him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Finally one of the men crucified along with Jesus, derides him, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” To these people “save yourself,” is a taunt, a way of rubbing Jesus’ nose in his powerlessness, because preserving oneself is what power is for. His inability or unwillingness to save himself is proof that he is no king, and no Messiah.
But the other criminal is somehow able to see the real power of Jesus. Crucifixion was a punishment reserved for rebellious slaves and others who took up arms against the state. So here is someone who has tried and failed to overthrow domination with revolutionary violence. He knows enough about Jesus to understand that this was not his way, and yet here Jesus is, suffering alongside him, condemned as if guilty of the man’s own crime. And this fills his dying agony with insight about what is really happening here. Jesus has not failed, because he never tried to win victory for one party over another, or to restore the greatness of one exceptional nation. He is, in fact, freely giving his life to lead all humankind into a different world. He is founding a new humanity, on the forgiveness of perpetrators and the witness of victims, on the vulnerability to lostness and sickness and sinfulness and death that we all have in common, and on our shared hope for the answering compassion of a loving God.
And so the crucified revolutionary discovers the unconditional and sacrificial love of Jesus, which more than a religious sentiment; more than a social ethic; more than a political strategy. In his willingness to forgo self-preservation in his confrontation with the power of sin, he is one with the self-emptying of God who created a universe free to rebel against their creator. He is one with the compassion of God who refuses to abandon her creatures to their rebellion. Jesus manifested this unity of human and divine will throughout public ministry, and his death and resurrection make it finally possible for all of us to perceive it, to believe in it, to understand how it works, and what it aims to do. And when our eyes open to see the kingdom of the Son of God, it is not just an illumination of the mind, but a longing kindled the heart, a fire lit in the soul, a passion to offer our selves in service to its consummation. The love that was in Christ becomes our own, not to form us into a new tribe called Christians, to wield the old, false power of domination over others, but to make us free agents of the reconciling, liberating love of God.
The news this week contained a vivid demonstration of this love. As the COP22 climate conference in Morocco was winding up on Friday, a group of 48 of the poorest countries in the world made an announcement. They said that while it is true that they are the least responsible for adding greenhouses gases to the atmosphere, and have benefitted the least from fossil-fueled industrial development, and have the least capacity to address the problem of human-caused climate distruption, because they are suffering the most from the unfolding catastrophe they have decided to take the lead in saving humanity. And so they are committing themselves to leaving behind the carbon economy as soon as possible. They are revising their plans for national development so that their carbon emissions peak by 2020, and they will build resilient economies based on renewable energy, and be completely carbon-neutral by 2050.
I’m not sure what it says that while we squander our wealth on military dominance, and indulge our fantasies of nationalistic revival, the poorest people in the world are displaying the moral greatness that we lack. Or that while we willfully prefer opinions of convenience to the facts threatening our children’s future, they are showing the capacity for altruistic sacrifice we seem largely to have lost. Certainly it gives the lie to any claim we might make to be a Christian nation. But “Christian nation” is an oxymoron anyway. And if the murderer could gain paradise while hanging on a cross, surely it isn’t too late for us. The Son of God still has the power to free us from the bondage of division and the slavery of sin, if we really want him to. But, of course, we would have to give up being normal.